In the first half against Minnesota in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, that script was flipped by P.J. Fleck’s up-and-coming Big 10 squad.
A lot of times when a program is on the rise, it can point to a couple game-breakers who are capable changing an offense’s identity. Minnesota certainly has that with Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson at receiver — both likely to relatively high NFL draft picks the next couple years — but with where Minnesota truly dominated in the first half was when its offensive line was asked to move the Tigers’ defensive line.
Rushing yards in the first half were squarely in the Gophers favor, with Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith leading the way to 141 first-half rushing yards on 24 carries. Meanwhile, the Auburn rushing game was held to five yards — yes, five — on nine carries.
Minnesota had the ball over twice as long as Auburn in the first half and had 15 first downs compared to just four for Auburn. One glance at the stats shows that the Tigers were incredibly fortunate to just be down seven points at the intermission.
In the second half …
The Tigers clearly made establishing the run a priority with 14 carries for 44 yards in the third quarter with JaTarvious Whitlow capping a 13-play, 86-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run just two plays after a near-disastrous fumble. Auburn’s willingness to stick to the run was highlighted by the fact the Tigers didn’t just immediately abandon Whitlow after the fumble.
While the rushing stats weren’t as gaudy for the Gophers, their ability to establish the ground game proved big in the fourth. The Tigers then somehow forgot to cover Tyler Johnson, who was wide open on a 73-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 31-24 lead.
No receiver this season — not any of the Alabama future first rounders or even LSU’s JaMarr Chase — has dominated the Auburn defense the way that Johnson did.
The receiver was certainly a deserving pick as the game’s MVP, but the 2019 Outback Bowl was won up front. At least on this day, Auburn simply was man-handled in the trenches.